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Saturday, July 02, 2005

Crank Science

Crank Science in a Cranky Age.

Try to make a cake without sugar, inflate a tire without air, invent a perpetual motion machine, or grow a company without making profits (dot-com anyone?) and odds are you won’t succeed. Brag about the attempt and your prospects and your audience will look upon you as an oddball or crank.

I will define a crank as someone who espouses some invention, philosophy, or concept that can only make sense if you leave out an obvious chunk of logic or reality. Leave out gravity and your bicycle flying machine will fail, leave out electricity and your car won’t start, and leave out cash flow and your company will fail. Since people equipped with a moderate amount of common sense can see this coming, they can keep at a distance while the half-laid plans of crank philosophy crash somewhere in the distance. And fortunately, common sense improves with time, as the folks who gathered in fields or in the offices of Merrill Lynch waiting vainly for the take off of an anti-gravity contraption or an Internet stock presumably learn something.

In science, crank philosophy remains safely in the sidelines, as we insist in our schools and in our news to be completely informed as to how things work. And if we don’t get this knowledge, we will be quick to turn the channel or ask for our money back. Consider for example a biology student in college. If the professor talked about life forces, psychic powers, and other animistic entities, and left out any discussion of physiology, endocrinology, or genetics, you would object. If he responds that such fine grain detail would dehumanize mankind, be too complex, or not provide any useful procedures that can help exorcisms be performed better, you would surely know as you rapidly make it to the doors that you are in the presence of a major Crank.

In the biological and physical sciences, we integrate fine grain or molecular conceptualizations of things with higher order metaphors that describe subjective experience, and thus can at turns talk about how bad we feel and cold viruses in the same breathe. The big benefit of this is that understanding how things really work constrains one from hypothesizing goof-ball metaphors (demonic possession, anti-gravity rays), that have no basis in science or the popular discourse that describes scientific things.

Oddly enough, in the so-called science of mind called psychology, biology is generally left out of the equation for human behavior, and is relegated to esoteric sub fields such as neurology or neuro-psychology that are un-integrated with other subject matters in psychology. Unfortunately, the biology that is integrated with psychology reflects common sense metaphors of the mind rather than the findings of contemporary neuroscience. Hence the mind is depicted a mere biological version of a digital computer, and adds, subtracts, multiplies, and makes decisions through the processing of linguistic symbols in a linear or serial order.

Of course, modern neuroscience has demonstrated this to be nonsense, yet the informing and unsettling aspect of the knowledge of how our brains actually work continues to be disparaged or ignored by almost all major schools of psychology, from psychoanalysis and humanistic psychology to evolutionary psychology and behaviorism. This unfortunately has led to an explosion of crank psychology, as theories about behavior proliferate as wildly and madly as the numerous theories of the universe that preceded Galileo and his telescope.

The fact that psychology pretends to be scientific while ignoring the fine grain aspects of its own subject matter, namely the brain, allows one to note the persistent ironies that make for good satire, and for satirical sites like this one. It also permits one to demonstrate how good observations can become subverted by crank theorizing (e.g., the flow ‘theory’, memes) that produces lots of heated metaphors, but little light.

The reason why psychology cannot come to grips with its own subject matter speaks of underlying social influences that have been a major topic among philosophers of science (particularly David Kuhn in his landmark work: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). It also underscores the fact that recent revolutionary findings about how our minds work must agonizingly wind their way through the Byzantine intellectual pathways that but slowly bring new ideas to the intellectual forefront.

Unfortunately, unlike the raucous debate that characterized the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions, western intellectual tradition is curiously defanged, and the broad implications of the neuro-cognitive revolution are reserved for polite debate, or more frequently, no debate at all. One need only to peruse the web to note that tough-minded debate on substantive issues in psychology is rare, and is near impossible to find regarding the implications of neuro-science on topic matters of psychology from learning to philosophy. So in lieu of a sober reckoning with these issues, what are the alternatives are available to us?

Science maps language to experience, and good science integrates the languages of experience into systematic wholes. The biological and physical sciences meld a myriad methodologies and languages into linguistic systems that can predict and, as importantly, explain the facts of existence. Such integrative accounts of the world are common in the physical sciences, however in the social sciences such views are only beginning to be assembled. Integrative accounts of psychology that meld the diverse methods and languages of the subject matter of psychology transcend the narrow journalistic formats that force psychology into a Procrustean bed of narrow procedures and narrow ends, and are the province of a new breed of psychologists that speak to public as well as academic minds. As coined by George Lakoff, this 2nd generation cognitive psychology is rooted in neuroscience, yet emphasizes the integration of the disparate methodologies and languages of psychology. As represented by the works of the biologist Gerald Edelman, the linguist George Lakoff, the neurologist Antonio Damasio, the bio-behaviorist John Donahoe, the philosopher Mark Johnson, and the neuro-psychologist Jaak Panksepp, these writers have the courage of their convictions to rebel against the parochial and often obfuscating trends that have made contemporary psychology into a tower of Babel, or should I say babble.

In an age that boasts a wealth of crank ideas that populate the entire of psychology, it takes a cranky sort to rudely utter the word ‘Eppur si muove!’ (But it does move!) in front of a priestly cast that does or should know better. Galileo immeasurably left his mark on scientific consciousness by his courage to speak boldly and rudely to a learned audience that surely knew better. He was banished for his troubles, yet his courageous defiance of the status quo defines the revolution in physics that exalted his memory and banished his inquisitors to the oblivion of history.

As a cranky site about crank psychology, drmezmer attempts to point out the sizable ironies of psychology with humor, yet the crisis of modern psychology is not a humorous thing. Indeed, for a searing and very ‘Galilean’ indictment of modern psychology, I strongly recommend Dr. Jaak Panksepp’s (hyperlinked below) cogent article on the state of psychology today. Jaak Panksepp is presently professor emeritus of neuroscience at Bowling Green State University, and is one of the most respected authorities on neuroscience in America. He also writes clearly, and speaks his mind. A most dangerous thing indeed for an academic.

In my opinion his article is of greater value than my site entire.

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